Analysis: Holocaust Memorial Day attack terror attack leaves 7 Israelis dead

Victims of terror attack > Courtesy, via Times of Israel

Seven Israelis were murdered in a terror attack as worshippers departed a Jerusalem synagogue on Friday night. The attack – on Holocaust Memorial Day – was the deadliest Palestinian terrorist attack in Jerusalem since 2008. The bloodshed comes amid a spiral of violence which began with an upsurge in terrorism last spring.

Terror at the synagogue

  • Alqam Khayri, a 21-year-old Palestinian from East Jerusalem, targeted the Ateret Avraham synagogue in Jerusalem’s Neve Yaakov neighbourhood as the evening Shabbat service was drawing to a close. He first murdered an elderly woman outside the synagogue before turning his gun on worshippers as they departed the service. A 14-year-old boy was among the victims.
  • Khayri attempted to escape by car but became involved in a gun battle with police officers before being shot dead.
  • The terrorist was unknown to the security services and was thought to have been acting as a “lone wolf”, although Israeli media reports indicate he was skilled in the use of his weapon and may thus have received some training. Police say Khayri had planned the attack in advance and appeared to know the place well.
  • Visiting the scene, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, labelled the attack “one of the worst in recent years” and appealed for calm. “We must act decisively and calmly, I urge people not to take the law into their own hands,” he suggested.
  • Labor party leader Merav Michaeli said: “My heart is with the wounded and the families of the murdered. We must fight this terror with a strong hand and without compromise.”
  • Mansour Abbas, the leader of the Israeli-Arab United Arab List alliance, unequivocally condemned “any terrorist attack in which civilians and innocents are murdered”. He added: “I call on everyone to exercise restraint, and cooperate to find a way to calm the situation and to save the lives of many people.”
  • Among the victims were a married couple, Eli and Natali Mizrahi, who, on hearing the gunshots, had rushed into the street to help and were then killed by the terrorist. A number of the injured were taken to Hadassah’s Mount Scopus Hospital

The world reacts

The Biden administration led international condemnation of the terror attack, with the president phoning Netanyahu to offer “all appropriate means of support to the government and people of Israel over the coming days”. Vice president Kamala Harris also spoke with President Isaac Herzog. The US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, who is visiting Israel and the region this week, commented: “The notion of people being targeted as they leave a house of worship is abhorrent.” The UK government also joined the condemnation, while the leader of the Labour party, Keir Starmer, said: “My thoughts go out to the families, and all of those affected, by this brutal act of terrorism which saw seven people senselessly murdered while simply at synagogue.” The shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, called the attack “horrific” and “despicable”. Words of condemnation also came from the UN, European capitals and Israel’s new allies in the region, such as the United Arab Emirates, which called the attack “criminal”.

The aftermath

  • In the wake of the attacks, the national alert level was raised to its highest level and forces bolstered along the security fence between Israel and the West Bank. Over 40 people, including associates and family members of Khayri, were arrested.
  • Further attacks continued on Saturday, with a 13-year-old Palestinian, Muhammad Aliyat, shooting a father and his son near Jerusalem’s Old City. The Palestinian was shot and wounded by police. The victims were reported to be in serious but stable condition.
  • There were also two attempted shooting attacks in the West Bank, close to Jericho and the settlement of Kedumim.
  • In Israel, ongoing anti-government protests took place on Saturday night, but with a minute’s silence at the start and no music being played.
  • On Saturday night, Israel’s security cabinet announced a series of tough measures, including speeding-up the process by which civilians can acquire firearms licenses, stripping the families of “terrorists of that express support for terrorism” of their right to Israeli social security benefits and identity cards, and “steps to strengthen settlements” which are due to be announced this week.
  • Israeli police fear “price tag” attack by far-right extremists on Israeli Arabs and Palestinians. A number of incidents – of stone-throwing, vandalism of vehicles and threatening graffiti – have been reported by Israeli media. Police are investigating and Netanyahu issued another appeal against vigilantism.

A grim backdrop

The terror attack came a day after an Israeli military operation in Jenin in which 10 Palestinians – eight of them combatants – were killed. The three-hour raid was designed to defuse what Israeli officials termed a “ticking time bomb”. The Israeli military said security forces had uncovered an imminent terror attack in central Israel by the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad group. Most of those killed in the clashes have been identified as gunmen and members of the PIJ terror cell, although two civilians also died. The Palestinian Authority suspended security cooperation with Israel in response, although Israel believes it was forced to act due to lax and ineffectual anti-terror efforts by the PA. The raid was part of “Operation Breakwater”, an Israeli security clampdown launched last year following an increase in terror attacks. It has foiled 500 terror attacks and led to 3,000 arrests. Following the Jenin operation, Palestinian terror groups fired rockets randomly from the Gaza Strip into Israel. Israel responded with strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza. There were no reported injuries on either side.

Praise from Hamas and celebrations in the West Bank and Gaza

Hamas welcomed the attack, with spokesman Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem saying it proved “the resistance knows how to find the appropriate response” to Israeli “crimes”. PIJ also praised the killings. Celebrations at the terror attack – including the handing out of sweets, setting off of fireworks and sounding of car horns – occurred on Friday evening in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, according to the Palestinian media. In several cities, including Ramallah, crowds took to the streets. Sharing a video of the scenes, Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gilad Erdan, suggested: “This is the result of decades of Palestinian incitement and hate that the world ignores.” There has long been concern – repeatedly raised in the UK parliament by Labour Friends of Israel – at officially sanctioned antisemitic incitement to violence and terrorism by the Palestinian Authority, in particular in the school curriculum and the naming of schools, sports tournaments and summer camps, and public places after terrorists. As if to underline the point, researchers from the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education examined textbooks used in the school of 13-year-old Aliyat and found some glorified violence and suicide bombings and extolled “martyrdom”. The Israeli security services had Khayri’s Facebook and Tiktok accounts, which had been flooded with messages of praise, removed, fearing they might help spark copycat attacks.

What happens next

As Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer suggested, the new Israeli government, which contains two far-right junior coalition partners, is ill-equipped to tackle the upsurge in terrorism, which it ruthlessly exploited for political ends when the Bennett-Lapid administration was in power. In 2015, during an increase in deadly stabbing attacks, the Netanyahu government resisted calls from the far right for a crackdown, followed the advice of police and the security services, and launched an intelligence-led operation to identify and snuff out “lone wolves” before they struck. But Netanyahu’s new government lacks moderate ballast and the prime minister has few good options if he wants to take tough – but effective – action to keep Israelis safe.